Investigators: Terrorist wore suicide underwear made by top AQ bombmaker in Yemen

In the war on terror, we’ve seen suicide vests and suicide belts.  We’ve even seen suicide rucksacks.  Now, the top Yemeni bombmaker for al-Qaeda has the latest in fashion for radical jihadists looking to martyr themselves for their faith, as ABC News reports:

The plot to blow up an American passenger jet over Detroit was organized and launched by al Qaeda leaders in Yemen who apparently sewed bomb materials into the suspect’s underwear before sending him on his mission, federal authorities tell ABC News.

Investigators say the suspect had more than 80 grams of PETN, a compound related to nitro-glycerin used by the military. The so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had only about 50 grams kin his failed attempt in 2001 to blow up a U.S.-bound jet. Yesterday’s bomb failed because the detonator may have been too small or was not in “proper contact” with the explosive material, investigators told ABC News.

Investigators say the suspect, Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian student whose birthday was last Tuesday, has provided detailed information about his recruitment and training for what was supposed to be a Christmas Day suicide attack.

It’s difficult to see how TSA will create standards to protect against suicide underwear.  Thanks to Richard Reid, we have to take off our shoes before getting to the gate now at the airport.  An underwear check will certainly make security today, with all of its delays, seem like a breeze in comparison, when breezes from airport air conditioning start hitting new places altogether.

Interestingly, this attack suffered from the same problem as the shoe bomber’s: incompetence.  Both flights got lucky that the radical Islamist at the trigger didn’t know how to set off the bomb properly.  The heroes on both flights could have been seriously wounded had even a portion of the underwear detonated.

TSA has already imposed new restrictions on international flights coming into the US (via Amy Alkon and Business Insider):

Extra pat-downs before boarding. No getting up for the last hour of the flight. More bomb-sniffing dogs. Airports worldwide tightened security a day after a passenger tried to light some kind of explosive on a flight into Detroit.

The Transportation Security Administration wouldn’t say exactly what it was doing differently on Saturday. It didn’t need to.

Passengers getting off both U.S. domestic flights and those arriving from overseas reported being told that they couldn’t get out of their seat for the last hour of their flight. Air Canada also said that during the last hour passengers won’t be allowed access to carry-on baggage or to have any items on their laps.

But at the origin of the problem, not much has changed:

Little was different at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, where the man’s trip originated. Soldiers impassively stared at those passing into the departure terminal Saturday. Others sat and talked among themselves, loaded rifles tossed over their shoulders.

Once again, the reaction to a terrorist attack has been to penalize everyone else instead of getting serious about the actual threat.  The US should have started emulating El Al after 9/11, whose security screening uses expert analysis and questioning, as well as heightened scrutiny where it belongs.  I wrote this over three years ago:

Israel doesn’t worry about what a passenger might carry onto a flight as much as they focus on the traveler himself. John Hinderaker at Power Line described his experiences flying El Al several years ago, while traveling with his family to Israel. After only asking a couple of questions, the screener wished him a happy vacation, assured that John meant no harm. (Apparently, the Israeli screener has never seen John in court.)

This approach allows people who present no danger to travel without being treated like a criminal from the moment they step into the airport to the time the plane lands at their destination. Israel understands that restricting items from carry-on luggage, or eliminating carry-on luggage entirely, will not stop a determined effort by terrorists to seize flights or destroy them. Therefore, the screeners focus on the passengers themselves. If they find one that makes them nervous, they start doing a more in-depth interrogation and a thorough search of the passenger and his luggage, carry-on or not.

It’s this subjective analysis that has civil libertarians opposed to such procedures in the US. The Times notes that some complain that such a program could turn into racial profiling without any objective safeguards. Some passengers who refused to cooperate in interviews got threatened with arrest, prompting lawsuits. The program in Dulles has uncovered over fifty people whose reactions revealed ill intent, although none of them terror-related.

These criticisms should have died on 9/11. The important point about airport security is to secure the airport and the airplanes, not worry that social attitudes may get bruised. If done properly — and the Israeli consultants say we have more work to get to that stage — then this program can catch the actual terrorists and leave the rest of us to travel in peace. Selection comes from a wide net of casual interactions, from which screeners narrow down the potential problems. That seems like a reasonable program, and its success would allow travelers to carry their Juicy Juice and Gatorade on board without getting tackled on the ramp.

One would think that after the latest terrorist plot got revealed, people would understand the need for better screening techniques and the desire to replicate the success of the Israelis. Some people will only be satisfied if passengers travel equally naked and equally shackled to their seats, rather than just find the few people who actually mean us harm.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have predicted suicide underwear at that time, but as I wrote in August 2006, the multiplying of regulations for everyone just means that terrorists will get more creative while everyone else gets discouraged from traveling at all.  As an approach to security and counterterrorism, it’s just nuts.

Update (AP): The ABC article says he was traveling via a U.S. visa granted in 2008, but the AP’s reporting that the feds have known for at least two years that he might have terrorist ties. Do we, er, normally grant visas to people we suspect of jihadist tendencies?

Meanwhile, two other passengers say they saw the suspect before the flight trying to board without a passport:

Haskell said he and his wife were sitting on the ground near their boarding gate in Amsterdam, which is when they saw Mutallab approach the gate with an unidentified man

While Mutallab was poorly dressed, his friend was dressed in an expensive suit, Haskell said. He says the suited man asked ticket agents whether Mutallab could board without a passport. “The guy said, ‘He’s from Sudan and we do this all the time.’”

Mutallab is Nigerian. Haskell believes the man may have been trying to garner sympathy for Mutallab’s lack of documents by portraying him as a Sudanese refugee.

The ticket agent referred Mutallab and his companion to her manager down the hall, and Haskell didn’t see Mutallab again until after he tried to detonate an explosive on the plane.

Here’s a little something dug up by the Breitbart team this afternoon. Sleep tight.

Update (Ed): James Joyner has more on the response from TSA, including how it wouldn’t have even prevented the attack that prompted the changes.

Update (AP): Looks like the video above might be a fake. A reader e-mails:

There is no explosive in the world where just a small drop can blow up a water melon, no way.

A physical chemist can probably provide the necessary calculations to it up, but just based on what I’ve seen from other explosives do I call this absolute bullshit. PETN has a vDet (velocity of detonation, or how quick the detonation goes through the explosive) of 8400 m/s. RDX is considered “one of the most powerful and brisant of the military high explosives.” (wiki) and has a vDet of 8750 m/s. In the video they claim that this explosive has a vDet of between 4300 and 6550 m/s, so not as powerful as PETN.

Now look at these video’s of PETN explosions:

This is 10 GRAMS of PETN, in contrast to the ±50mg (at absolute most) they used on the other video… Ok, the 10g PETN does some damage, but I doubt it would have been enough to completely blow up a plane – besides, I really doubt that a 200 smaller amount would have ‘evaporated’ a water melon.

Another example, of 4g PETN this time (remember, this is 80 times the amount claimed in the hot air video)

Good points all, although there’s still a smidgen of credibility in the fact that we don’t know which chemicals are being used here. (I wouldn’t have posted it if we did, obviously; it’s a classic Mythbusters blur-and-blur mix!) Some commenters at Breitbart’s site also claimed that the video was fake, though, as well as very old. So apologies, in that case, for raising the alarm with bad info.